Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

The Battle of Bettye LaVette

Bettye-Lavette-200x300Everyone’s talking about the new Bettye LaVette tell-all book, A Woman Like Me, in which she dishes the dirt on her old friends from the Motor City and describes some of the worst gigs she ever had, among other shockers.  I’ve not yet read it (Santa forgot to deliver it), but  I had my own conversation with LaVette a couple of years back and it was originally published in Crawdaddy! online.  I’m reposting it in its entirety here, or as LaVette would say, it’s making a ” comeback from the crypt,” just in time for the new year.

I’d certainly heard of the battle of Bettye LaVette, a struggle that lasted for decades and ended with the singer’s triumphant comeback, but I hadn’t really heard Bettye LaVette until I put on The Scene of the Crime, LaVette’s disc on which she’s accompanied by the Drive-By Truckers:  So moved was I by her song interpretations, by the record’s end, I was hunched in a chair, sobbing into my hands.

LaVette is a seamstress of song, ripping up the compositions of others and tucking and tailoring them until they’re customized to fit a dynamo. The ability to pinch syllables here, personalize language there, and slip inside a song the way LaVette does is at the heart of her artistry. The moment I grasped how much power she packs into a song came somewhere in the middle of her remodel of “Talking Old Soldiers”, an Elton John and Bernie Taupin tune she’d rescued from the ’70s. As she told of graveyards and memories, LaVette sang, “It don’t seem likely I’ll get friends like that again,” and Taupin’s words about a soldier became not only a ballad of a sole survivor but the story of a woman’s life. I think it was LaVette’s tough but tender declaration of the idea that where there is life, there will also be loss that got to me. But I’m not sure… I don’t think very clearly when my rational thoughts are mingled with the primal stuff. When I was done listening, I knew I wanted to ask her about how she prepares to go that deep into the world of song, night after night.

Of course, LaVette’s heard that query and others like it plenty of times before. It’s probably safe to say that LaVette has heard everything. “Like about recording, they’ll say, ‘Was it very difficult to do this?’ and I’ll say ‘No, they’re just songs. It isn’t surgery. Basically, they’re just like “Happy Birthday”, you just rearrange them!’ she says excitedly. And yet, without her 40 years of dark nights packed into them, the songs she sings in Scene of the Crime would hardly be the same at all.

Once or twice in her promising career the soul songstress had the rug pulled out from under her cha-cha heels. The story of her long-waged war on going unheard started in 1962 when, at the age of 16, she was dropped from her label on the eve of a tour to promote “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man”, her Top 10 R&B hit. There was another less notorious incident, when “Let Me Down Easy” (a sweet and low slice of mid-’60s soul released by another record company) failed to take the world by storm as planned. But LaVette’s infamous blow came in ’72, on a second bet with Atlantic, following the completion of her session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the Memphis Horns. It was hoped that the masterful Child of the Seventies would be her overdue breakthrough, though the record was inexplicably locked in a vault for the next 28 years.

Between ’62 and ’02, LaVette recorded (she charted R&B a few more times) and performed, though she was often relegated to hotel bars and stages even less illustrious. “The same show you see now I was doing for $50 a night. That’s the way I was raised. That’s the way I work mine,” she says. And yet the stone survivor hasn’t lost her ability to laugh at what’s been framed as her tragic fate. “I figured that if I could live long enough to get over to everyone’s house and do a show on their porch, I could get to ‘em all,” she says. Meanwhile, offstage she fielded dumb-ass questions like, “Didn’t you used to be Bettye LaVette?”

And then, at the turn of the century, the winds of change started to blow for the artist who was once and always Bettye LaVette. First off, a French record label dug up the tapes of Child of the Seventies and released it as Souvenirs, setting the gears in motion for her now-famous comeback “from the crypt,” as she calls it. By 2004, a collection of newly recorded works, A Woman Like Me, had earned her a W.C. Handy Award for contemporary blues achievement. Her steady and recent ascendance is owed to the critical and commercial acceptance by rock audiences for two albums recorded and released in the last three years for hipster haven, Anti Records, starting with 2005′s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (a collection of songs produced by Joe Henry and written by women, among them Aimee Mann, Sinead O’Connor, and Fiona Apple). But mostly it’s last year’sScene of the Crime, for which she returned to Muscle Shoals to record 10 handpicked songs produced by herself, David Barbe, and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers that brings it all back home for LaVette and kicks things up a notch.

Recorded at FAME Studios in Hood’s hometown, he assembled the studio personnel, including his band as well as old-soul hands, like his dad and bassist David Hood (who played on LaVette’s obscured Child of the Seventies album) and keyboard legend, Spooner Oldham. Together, they created a bed of Southern comfort upon which LaVette laid her smoke and honey voice. The singer chose the songs—from the likes of writers such as Willie Nelson and John Hiatt to (brace yourself) Don Henley—then proceeded to give them her patented country-soul twist (you have to believe anyone who can wrest some goodness from a Henley song has got it going on). In addition to her 14 karat pipes, LaVette’s got jewel-toned ears. She’s constantly listening and hearing things in songs that most regulars can’t detect, though only a handful will make the cut and get the LaVette treatment. “For me, it’s like choosing who I would make love to. Just because I liked a guy, I wouldn’t have to go to bed with him… but we could be friends,” she says.

Born in Michigan as Betty Haskins, LaVette claims she’s been singing since she was 18 months of age, following a dictionary-defining soul music baptism: she witnessed the traveling gospel stars of the day come to drink and dance the night away at her mother’s Detroit juke joint, though her own Catholic roots left her without much church in her voice. “Gospel certainly has an influence in any black voice, but you hear more blues in my songs because every Sunday morning my family had a hangover,” she says. “My people are from Louisiana, so there was that mixture of gumbo, prayer, drink, the rosary, and that whole bit. They’ve got that so jumbled up; I don’t think anybody understands it. But my mother understood it perfectly,” she says.

When the ’62 tour was scuttled LaVette was just 16; the disappointment she endured while watching her peers overtake the Detroit music scene left her with a hole in her soul the size of Wayne County. Eventually, she filled the space with lesser passions and valuable life skills, though she says, “They took my joy,” to borrow a phrase from a song she favors by Lucinda Williams.

When I spoke to LaVette about her joy a couple of weeks before Christmas, she was off the road in New Jersey, at home with her husband, Kevin Kiley. The singer who has been described as “fierce,” “tough,” and “stubborn,” sometimes all in the same sentence, was charming and effervescent, though her voice was tired and hoarse. “Since last Thursday, all I’ve done is talk and drink champagne,” she said. “I’ve called everyone I’ve ever known.” LaVette had been letting folks know that, after 45 years in the business, she had just received her first Grammy nomination for her performance in the TheScene of the Crime. And with that, the battle of Bettye LaVette is finally won.

Crawdaddy!: Congratulations on your Grammy nomination. Am I right in guessing that the feelings accompanying the industry validation are somewhat bittersweet?

LaVette: All of the bitter is gone. I’ve done so many things with the bitter. It’s more like a vindication—like someone who’s been in prison for 46 years and is finally rele
ased.Photo by Elizabeth Fladung

Crawdaddy!: Was there a part of you that always believed recognition would come?

LaVette: No, not in the last 20 years. You can’t believe that for 46 years. People who say, “I always knew this would happen…” are crazy just like me, but they just took it another way. Even if I thought it for 30 years, it’s impossible to think you’re going to be up for a Grammy after 40 years. I didn’t think that I’d have another record contract. I figured some little label in Europe would offer me something and put it out and I’d do that. As long as I could sing, I could continue to work.

Crawdaddy!: If you don’t mind me asking, how did you come by your name, your last name in particular, which is pretty unusual?

LaVette: As everything in my life, they came over a period of time. The spelling of it is one story; the naming of me is another.

Crawdaddy!: Please tell both stories.

LaVette: After we came out of the studio one Sunday, they said, ,”You can change your name if you want and have a stage name,” and I was coming up with stuff like LaLa LaFool. I was 16! I wanted to be glamorous… I was thinking of grand names, not realizing the more grand the name the more you had to live up to it. Everybody wanted to be a Labelle or a Vandella. My best girlfriend… introduced me to everyone in Detroit who was recording at the time. I loved her and my mother hated her. Her middle name was Lavett and I thought it was so pretty. I added the e to LaVette because it looked better and I added the e to Bettye when I started doing theater because it made a pretty autograph. There was an article that said it had to do with numerology. Why does everything have to be so complicated? I think I might be a little disappointing as an interviewee because people want me to say, “I had to light five candles and paint the room orange.”

Crawdaddy!: I don’t think that’s disappointing at all. Your story is a perfect illustration of teenage reason: You weren’t thinking of the future, you only cared what your best girlfriend thought and what your mother didn’t like and you wanted to be a glamorous grown-up. What got you discovered at that age?

LaVette: A guy discovered me, who was just like any other guy, trying to pick me up, saying he could make me a star, only he took me to Johnnie Mae Matthews. I was really lucky… it was just a lucky set of circumstances (Lavette’s record for Matthews was nabbed for distribution by Atlantic Records). When I signed with Atlantic, Berry Gordy wanted to have a deal with Atlantic. Atlantic was the biggest recorder of black R&B music in the world. I still know people who Berry Gordy owed five dollars to, at that time. People ask me, how is it that you were never a part of Motown? It was nothing to be a part of! It wasn’t a business move! [laughter]. This was segregation… truly a time when all blacks knew each other. All the blacks who drank corn liquor and who had come up from the South and had jukeboxes in their living rooms came to my house. All the blacks that wanted to be on jukeboxes hung around on the streets and in front of Motown and the zillion other recording studios there at the time. There were the blacks that were like Aretha’s father, the Reverend Franklin, or like Berry Gordy’s parents who had black businesses. All of these people who have now become legends were just poor black people like me, including Berry Gordy, or maybe even mostly Berry Gordy.

Crawdaddy!: I know you’ve told this part of the story many times before, but when Atlantic dropped you, how did you deal with the initial disappointment?

LaVette: I never got over it. But you just add the feeling to a song. I’ve been waiting for them to call for 46 years on and off. I’d wait some weeks and I’d give up some weeks. In the back of my mind, whether I believed at one point they were ever going to call, I did make the decision that if they ever called I was going to be ready. That’s a decision you really have to make. You have to decide that you are going to drink as much water as you do champagne… that you are going to cry and puff up your face as much as you don’t. You have to let people be good to you. You have to believe at some point that you really are good and that’s what you’re going to do, even if you’re going to do it for $50 a night.

Crawdaddy!: When you worked with Cab Calloway on Broadway in the ’70s, did he have any words of wisdom on the ups and downs in the life of an entertainer?

LaVette: No. I just had to act the way my manager taught me, like he was the star and I wasn’t. I worked on my craft, went to bed at a certain time, got only so drunk, showed up on time. That was the way show business used to be. I’ve been lucky with people… people who believed in me, people who’ve had faith in me, stuck with me. They’ve helped me stay alive. I just got my voice back today because from Thursday till the day before yesterday, I’ve been calling people. I called my best friend in the fifth grade… she and her husband have always supported me, coming to little dives and bringing their neighbors with them. I called everybody who ever bought me a drink or tried to help me.

Crawdaddy!: The new album is just fantastic. I love the opening Eddie Hinton song, “Take Me Like I Am (Still Want to be Your Baby).” Have you always liked his songs?

LaVette: I am not a music enthusiast at all. The last people I liked were Otis Redding and [obscured by laughter] but songs run out of my husband’s nose. He’s a record collector and dealer and a historian and he knows everyone who has ever heard tell of a microphone. I’ve been exposed to more music in these five years that we’ve been married… he plays music continuously. Like now, I’m watching the Republican debate because that’s what really entertains me and he’s listening to music in his office. But if music of any kind is playing, I hear it regardless. If I’m trying to relax, all I can hear is music. In five years, I’ve heard him play 30 songs that I liked—30 I wanted to sing. I picked 10 that I asked him to catalog for me. Patterson Hood sent me 50 songs and I didn’t want to sing ‘em and the record company sent me about the same amount of songs and I didn’t want to sing ‘em, and I’ll explain to you, it wasn’t that I didn’t like them, it was that I didn’t want to sing them.

Photo by Elizabeth FladungCrawdaddy!: I’d like to talk a little about the relationship between country and soul music, how it’s so effortless for you to slip a country song into a soulful arrangement.

LaVette: My mother’s favorite singers were Red Foley and Tex Ritter. She must’ve been the only black broad who sold corn liquor in the ghetto who listened to Red Foley and Tex Ritter, and she was an avid Grand Ole Opry listener, so I heard that every week. And then we had the jukebox there in the house that had all the latest black songs of the day. I was hearing that and I wasn’t thinking of any of it as country or blues, those were just the songs I heard. And then, it being segregation, we had all the gospel singers coming to the house… I was singing whole songs when I was like 18-months-old. My mother said I never spoke baby talk, I immediately started talking. I never saw any children, so I talked like they talked and I cussed like they cussed.

Crawdaddy!: Did you like the music of your day?

LaVette: I was always an avid Drifters fan. The first time I went on the road with Clyde M
cPhatter and Ben E. King I was breathless… I’d only been singing for like a month. When Otis Redding joined us and we were working at the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, Otis and I, we were the people that no one had ever heard of, the last ones on the totem pole, and we were giddy: we’re with Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King!

Crawdaddy!: Which song do you think of as your signature?

LaVette: “Your Turn to Cry” and “Let Me Down Easy.” “Let Me Down Easy” beared up well till they could find me down in the crypt, so I would think, “Your Turn to Cry” and “Let Me Down Easy.” If everything else disappeared that’s what I’d want to be remembered by.

Crawdaddy!: As I was listening to “Talking Old Soldiers” from the new album, I started to weep and I wondered if it’s hard for you to put yourself in the kind of space to sing the sad songs, night after night?

LaVette: It’s hard to sing as hard as I do, and it’s hard to move about on those heels and stay in perfect form, that’s the hard thing. But the songs are sad, no matter if you sing ‘em 100 times. It’s a very sad song. Every time I would hear that haunting piano, it would put me in that mood. I wouldn’t have to conjure it up or think of when my puppy died or anything. When I’d hear that sad, haunting sound on piano, even if I didn’t know that song, I would think of something else sad. It’s a sad, desolate song. I told my husband… people are going to be hiring me for funerals!

Crawdaddy!: I almost have to stop listening it’s so sad.

LaVette: I love that feeling. I’ve always lived my life in b-flat minor. “Let Me Down Easy” was in that key. Some people in England tell me it’s the saddest song they’ve ever heard. I’ve talked to men my age who said they were in boys’ school and had to crawl under their beds, listening to it crying and they didn’t even know what they were crying about. I can remember coming home from school, listening to Bobby Bland’s “Lead Me On.” I guess I was 12 and I was breaking down crying, it was just so sad.

Crawdaddy!: You open your shows with a rocker, “The Stealer”, by Free. How did that one enter the set list?

LaVette: That’s from the It’s Your Turn to Cry album. I never sang it, since we recorded it, until we started this five years ago. That is so much fun and it’s so me. We just decided it’s going to be my opening tune forever. The first CD, from after the coming out of the crypt, I was trying to sell it. “The Stealer” rose to the occasion so I let it be the opening tune. I think show business, I don’t think records. I think maybe Bob Dylan could open with whatever he wanted to or something, but when I think of opening a show I think of something that really properly introduces you, makes everyone stop talking. “The Stealer” has worked out great.

Crawdaddy!: In your live show you continue to perform “Joy” by Lucinda Williams too. I love the way you sing that. What is it about that one that makes it a keeper?

LaVette: The song immediately appealed to me. When they listened to that song they asked me, “Why do you like that?” That was one they couldn’t hear at all. When I listened to what she was saying, I knew exactly what she was saying. I could tell she was talking about a lover but my lover has been this career thing all these years. “Talking Old Soldiers” was an old soldier but I was talking about this bar I used to hang in. The stories can relate to you, even if they’re “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Crawdaddy!: What did you do with all your emotions when you weren’t singing as much as you are now?

LaVette: I would just take the emotion and do other things with it. I would make something hearty like gumbo, put all that stuff into other things. I would garden because they weren’t letting me sing. I would put it everywhere. People were coming by leaving their cards, asking if I would do their yard! It was breaking my heart, but I took the pride, that I had done it so well. But do you think I wanted someone asking me to do their yard?

Crawdaddy!: I need to ask you to reveal another secret: How do you stay in shape?

LaVette: I do yoga. I need to keep my stomach and back muscles strong so I can holler and sustain notes. I don’t think people realize this is a physical activity. You have to rest, drink a certain amount of water. But a routine? No. I don’t feel like I owe it to this business to work out everyday… I worked out every day while I was waiting to relieve frustration. That and stomach in, no matter if you’re making love or making coffee.

Filed under: Interview, Soul, , ,

And So This is Christmas. Again.

A version of this column originally appeared as an installment of The Origin of Song for Crawdaddy! online

And so it was that a centuries-old folk song about a race horse launched a rock ‘n’ roll Christmas standard 40 years ago, or so the story goes.  Oh, I know this will not be news to the most scholarly of you folk and rock types, however, for this folk and rock type, I hadn’t made the link  until it was pointed out to me a couple of years ago that the melody to “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is a borrowed tune.

“Stewball” was a race horse, as the song goes, and the first song about him was written in the late 1700s. At that time, Stewball went by the name Skewball, though you might also see versions that tell of Sku-ball and Squball. The name was likely because his coat was of the skewbald variety, or what we call “pinto,” a horse with patches of color, usually on a chestnut or reddish base (funny that at some point he wasn’t dubbed Screwball). According to folk music lore and some reliable sources, Arthur Marvell’s Sku-Ball was set to race Sir Ralph Gore’s gray mare Miss Portly in Kildare, Ireland. But when the dark horse, or more accurately, the skewbald horse won, it took the horse people by surprise:  They had expected the animal with the pedigree to take home the prize. Newsworthy as this was, the story made the broadsides: Printed on cheap paper and passed around, a popular ballad was born, beginning its journey through time and around the world.

Lyrically, there are plenty of variations on the “Skewball” story: For example, “Molly and Tenbrooks” is an American telling of a late 19th century horse race between California’s Mollie McCarty and Kentucky’s Ten Broeck. Versions of “Molly and Tenbrooks” were cut by bluegrass giants, the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, but theirs are a different melody, though related by subject and genre to “Stewball” by kissin’ cousins the Greenbriar Boys. There lay the origin of the melody Joan Baez recorded. Her version is also somewhat of a conflation of the stories told in “Stewball” (who in some cases is a wine-drinking, winning race horse), and “Molly and Tenbrooks” (in which the mare stumbles and thus explains Stew’s win).

Comparing, compiling, and commenting on centuries-old ballads is a vocation to which I am not called; the work is best left to experts like Steve Roud of Croydon, London—he’s compiled the Roud Folk Song Index, listing 33 versions of Stewball and 22 versions of Skewball with data to match. He’s got the info on the John Lomax recordings of inmates of Parchman Farm singing their version in the ’30s, as well as Lead Belly’s ’40s adaptation (which begins “Way out in California…”), but again, different melody, different words, though the horse legend remains inasmuch as the “Stewball” recorded by Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston concerns a race between a California and a Texas horse.

The version many of us know as “Stewball” entered the folk-rock zone in the ’60s, delivered by Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary via the Greenbriars song, credited to John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Robert Yellin. For rock folk, there could hardly be worse news than the prospect of yet another rousing verse of the song about a race horse by these buttoned-up icons of traditional song. But by 1966, the Hollies had delivered their folk-rock take on it, with the added zing of their harmony style. With this in mind, we now depart from the green fields of Ireland and the pastures of the Southwest where the story takes on a greater 20th century relevance as it moves to New York City in 1971, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono borrowed the melody and came up with a Christmas song, its subject peace on earth during wartime.

“‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control,” Lennon said in his final major interview. Lennon and Ono had used the “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” slogan in their billboard campaign of 1969, based on the idea that peace must be sold to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war is promoted (The Doors had previously  used the slogan, “war is over,” in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967).

John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band (whose star players for the purpose of this session were Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) and the Harlem Children’s Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”) recorded the song in October at the Record Plant, assisted by producer Phil Spector. It was released in the US on December 6th and held ’til the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence on the track, though for now, it’s purely conjecture whether in addition to inspiration plucked from the Greenbriars’ version, as rendered by PPM and Baez, there is also a dash of such claustrophobic Spector efforts as the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, not to mention another song from Lennon’s past: “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace. “Happy Xmas” bears traces of those melodies in addition to their somber moods.

Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

There are plenty of covers of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, none of them mentionable, and some of them unmentionable (Billy Bob Thornton). The only version worth a bleep that I’ve heard is the original. The melody of “Stewball” seems to have been laid to rest with Lennon’s imaginative use of it, and has insured that it’s sung at least once a year.

From the race tracks of County Kildare to the chain gangs of Mississippi, Stewball is tired and has gone to the place where retired horses go. Think of him this year as you sing along. Or don’t. But do take to heart the song’s final verse: “A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s good one, without any fear”). That is my message to you, dear reader. Thanks for hanging with me through this “Stewball” adventure, and for that matter, throughout this year.  If there are songs or subjects you are interested in reading about next year, let me know. Just no suggestions involving horses, please: I’m happy to say I’ve finished that race.

WARNING:  Video depicts graphic imagery of the horror of war.

Filed under: anti-war, Origin of Song, , , , , ,

Talking Cornershop with Tjinder Singh

Tjinder - Cornershop -  photographer Marie RemyReaders of Keep on Pushing often ask if I intend to write a part two and if so, whose stories will I choose to help illustrate the ongoing struggles to battle injustice and wage peace in our time through song?  Well, one of the first artists that always comes to mind is Tjinder Singh of Cornershop.  Officially in business since 1991, Singh and his collaborator Ben Ayres fuse hip hop, Beatles-styled pop and Punjabi folk jams to tell Singh’s own story as an artist of color, originally from  England’s industrial center, the Black Country. Earlier this year, I pointed readers toward the Cornershop single, “Milkin’ It,” a tribute to golden era hip hop artists with a video clip featuring turf dancers in Oakland: Sometimes it takes a filmmaker and a musician from England to hip you to what’s happening in your own backyard… After digesting that, I ended the year interviewing Singh for Stir, a new online magazine which aims to build a world wide community of activists. Actually, Singh and I traded emails and he told me a bunch of stuff about his life and art. I hope you’ll read it: I’m calling it my first interview for Keep on Pushing Pt II, potentially subtitled, People Power in the Eleventh Hour. But until then, here’s a slice of Cornershop with French singer, Soko: it’s featured on Urban Turban, the new collection of recent singles and collaborations.

Filed under: Interview, , , , , ,

“All I Want is the Truth”

Remembering John Lennon (October 9, 1940—December 8, 1980) today, I offer an excerpt from Keep on Pushing and a clip from The Dick Cavett Show.john

“Upon the release of Some Time in New York City in June of 1972, critics and consumers decreed that a heavy does of politics with their music was not what the people ordered. The album became the couple’s worst-received recording in their catalog.  “We thought it was really good,” says Yoko Ono.  Though Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson” and the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Angela Davis, Lennon and Ono took the most heat of all for supporting radical ideals in song, and Ono got her fair share of abuse. “I wasn’t heardthen.  Ok, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says.  And yet the prescience of the concerns that the Lennons reaised in the high-era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution —-raising ideas like making art and music for peace, standing together, and suggesting we engage in small acts of human kindness as a way to change the vibration of the world—were deemed threatening to national security and rejected by fans. With his commercial potency at a low ebb and his position on nonviolence officially committed to government documents [translation: he was for peace], one might think there was no case for the US government against the Englishman and his Japanese wife.  But their problems with the immigration service and the Nixon White House had only just begun…”

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Interview, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , ,

Goodnight, Lead Belly

leadbellyLead Belly died on Dec. 6 1949.  This is part of his story, adapted from my old Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

“I’m obsessed with him. He’s my favorite performer,” said Kurt Cobain. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” claimed George Harrison, and the same may as well be said for Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page was rocking “Cotton Fields” back in 1957. According to Van Morrison, “If it wasn’t for Lead Belly, I may never have been here.” And yet, Lead Belly—born Huddie Ledbetter near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1888—is rarely the first traditional American musician historians credit with the creation of rock ‘n’ roll or the bands of the British Invasion. His contribution to rock is as fundamental and profound as those of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, so why is it we don’t hear that much anymore about his legend? Perhaps it can be blamed on the boll weevil he sung about—and it indeed may have something to do with cotton—though the diminishment of Lead Belly’s influence on rock is likely just another case of the forgotten origins of song.

The Louisianan’s sound first came to impact the young lads who would go on to form the classic rock bands of the ’60s via the British Isle’s mid-’50s skiffle craze. Rooted in the jug band style of the 1920s, skiffle’s homemade and improvised style relied on the wacky sounds of household items like washboard, comb, and homemade instruments—the stuff that makes for its irresistible, ecstatic sound. Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan’s frantic version of “Rock Island Line”, first popularized by Lead Belly, swept across the land like skiffle-mania, boosting guitar sales and launching a thousand bands, like young Jim Page’s combo as well as the Quarrymen (who we all know by now birthed the Beatles).

For Morrison—who’d already developed a taste for the blues voices of the American South—skiffle provided confirmation of the potential for what an Irishman could do with a black American folk sound. The Lead Belly repertoire meeting English skiffle marked the beginning of his long association with rock ‘n’ roll; though stateside he was more of a singular phenomenon, as well as a folker.

Coming up through traditional, mythological American folkways, it is said that folklorist John Lomax discovered Lead Belly during the singer’s stay at Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary (it was his third incarceration). It was there that Lomax and his son Alan recorded songs by him for the Library of Congress, some of them passed on to Lead Belly through his association with Blind Lemon Jefferson; among them was the standard “Goodnight Irene”, which eventually became Lead Belly’s calling card. As one version of the story goes, Lomax pressed a record of Lead Belly and presented it to the state’s governor, who was so taken with it that the prison doors unlocked for his release. So off went Lomax and Lead Belly, at this point close to 50 years old, to New York and toward a career in show business.

As a late-comer to the game, Lead Belly was not in on the earliest rush of race records in the 1920s and 1930s, and so it was his less-than-polished Lomax recordings that would come to define him; that may be one contributing factor toward explaining a present-day resistance to a full embrace of Lead Belly as pre-rock ‘n’ roller. Additionally, Lomax’s song-catcher practices are a source of controversy and a sore subject among blues researchers. Objections to the way Lead Belly was discovered, promoted, and recorded are cited; indeed, shortly after his initial agreement with him, it appears Lead Belly found the arrangement with Lomax unacceptable too. Though not long after severing ties with Lomax (he would eventually resume relations with the Lomax family) Lead Belly accepted a press opportunity to be photographed, costumed in black and white prisoner’s attire, performing his role of ex-convict made good. By the end of the ’30s, he’d gone on to find success writing topical songs (“The Bourgeois Blues”) and fell in with the left-leaning protest singing community—though he didn’t necessarily abide its progressive politics. His association with fellow travelers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, found the FBI hunting him as well. What Lead Belly, the folksinger, really desired was to launch a career in Hollywood, but that wasn’t meant to be.

None of these political or personal, salient or picayune points debated by historians or surveyed here concerned the queen of civil rights music, Odetta. She cut straight to the emotional delivery and content of Lead Belly’s songs and made his work her guidepost throughout her long career; she was the bridge to folk rock. “When I started in the years of folk music, it was a discovery,” she said to an audience at UCLA in 2008. As part of a self-directed exploration of her cultural heritage, she came upon the Lomax recordings in the 1950s and recognized in Lead Belly’s songs the sound of slavery, “my people,” she said. Her earliest recordings include Ledbetter arrangements of “Alabama Bound” and “Take This Hammer”, released in 1956 and 1957 respectively; she is famously credited for inspiring Dylan to pick up the acoustic guitar. Dylan’s recording debut (prior to his own solo album, on which he name-checked Lead Belly) came as a harmonica player, for calypso and Lead Belly fan Harry Belafonte, who cut the traditional “Midnight Special” for his 1962 album of the same title. Belafonte had previously recorded Lead Belly’s composition “Cotton Fields” in 1959, one of the songs that gets covered and covered by artists diverse as Buck Owens to Buckwheat Zydeco (young Jimmy Page played it with his skiffle band). By 1969, when Creedence Clearwater Revival covered both “Cotton Fields” and “Midnight Special” for their Willy and the Poor Boys album, doing Lead Belly had become a rock ‘n’ roll requirement or at the very least a very trendy thing to do—even the Beach Boys had a hit with “Cotton Fields.”

In 1970, Led Zeppelin got the Lead out when they turned “Gallis Pole” into “Gallows Pole” on their adventures in acoustic folk album, III. First recorded by Lead Belly in 1939 as “Gallis Pole”, the song is based on “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”, likely of Scandinavian origin and run through the British ballad tradition. Page first heard the song as arranged by Fred Gerlach. “He’d been influenced originally by Lead Belly,” Page is quoted as saying in Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography, though Zeppelin was certainly not unaware of Lead Belly. “He was one of the main movers when I was a kid,” says Robert Plant (quoted in Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, also the source for the endorsements by Harrison, Cobain, and Morrison above). Plant and his collaborator, Alison Krauss, first bonded musically at a Lead Belly tribute concert. Perhaps there is more to the story of how they got the Led in their name than goes the legend of John Entwistle’s joke about the potential for a supergroup to fall flat, “like a lead zeppelin.”

But like cotton, the King of the 12-String could not remain king forever. Them old cotton fields back home were beginning to recede from popular consciousness as songs of urban discontent began to take their place. In addition, the Rolling Stones, who had previously brought their audience to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were now touting Robert Johnson. Their 1969 version of his song “Love in Vain” preceded to the market place the 1970 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its new cache of Johnson songs. The Johnson and Delta influence remains a big deal to this day, its legends and iconography completely enmeshed with blues culture as we know it. Lead Belly’s prison songs, children’s songs, and field and work songs didn’t fit so neatly into bluesology, and rock became a Lead-free zone, with a few notable exceptions.

In 1977, Ram Jam put some Southern rock funk into Lead Belly’s “Black Betty,”  though the Top 20 single wasn’t a hit with critics or (according to lore) with racial equality groups. The track played Lead Belly’s rock potential to maximum effect (though it is regrettable if anyone got hurt by it). As the ’80s arrived, punk rock and new wave took Lead Belly underground with it, as Bongwater, Michelle Shocked, and X became keepers of the flame. Proudly in synch with the pulse of the people and the hard times that echoed his original era, X turned “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” into an elegy for a loved one and revived “Rock Island Line” with their folky side project, the Knitters.” A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly joined Little Richard and Fishbone on “Rock Island Line” and Beach Boy Brian Wilson came back for another pass at Lead Belly on “Goodnight Irene”, though the project did more for boosting the rock cred of Guthrie (who got the Springsteen and Mellencamp treatment) than it did for Lead Belly.

From there, it was on to the Pacific Northwest and under the bridge where Kurt Cobain lived. The Nirvana man brought his tape of Lead Belly songs to his band’s earliest rehearsals; he and fellow founding grunge scenester Mark Lanegan shared an enthusiasm for him, as heard on their duet of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (found on Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet album). Nirvana’s definitive performance of the song on Unplugged was an immediate highlight of that show, when Cobain’s guttural wrenching was assumed to be tied to his personal life and precarious emotional states. It’s hard to top that one, though when Alvin Youngblood Hart rejuvenated “Gallows Pole” in Lead Belly-style on his 1996 album, Big Mama’s Door, he brought back Lead Belly’s quickness and dexterity on his instrument full circle: Just man and guitar.

Lead Belly lived out his final days in New York, eventually succumbing to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949. Had he lived another year, he would’ve seen his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”, turned into a million-seller, a #1 hit as interpreted lightly by the Weavers. The overlooked genius of Lead Belly is that his songs and mighty rearrangements continue to transgress genres and generations, from folk to rock, from Pete Seeger to Jack White. Just think what we would’ve missed had Jimmy Page pursued a career in research science as he’d intended rather than picking his way to the top of the “Gallows Pole.” By the 21st century, the White Stripes played “Red Bird” and “Take a Whiff on Me”, and if the show went well, they’d close it with “Boll Weevil”, yet another folk tune popularized by Lead Belly. I’ve heard of Two Gallants playing “Mother’s Blues” aka “Little Children’s Blues” live, though only time can tell who’ll be the next in line to shine an ever-lovin’ light on the songs of Lead Belly.

Filed under: Blues, , , , , , , ,

Keep on Pushing (Again)

Everybody’s humming “Keep On Pushing” again, thanks to it being the soundtrack to a new ad, but there are a few details that even LeBron’s smart phone doesn’t know about the wonderful song that also stands in for the title of my book concerning political movement and music.

Among the  young songwriters who knew the power of an anthem and made the Freedom Movement swing was Curtis Mayfield of Chicago. Just 17 and straight out of the Cabrini-Green housing projects when he hit it big with “Your Precious Love,” recorded by his vocal group the Impressions, Mayfield was a highly conscious, conscientious, and musicially gifted individual. By the early ‘60s he had already sustained the departure of his childhood gospel choir buddy, Jerry Butler, from the group and was leading Samual Goodens and Fred Cash on his own as he became a formidable writer of inspirational R&B hits.

The Impressions captured the ephermeral spirit of gospel’s lift and married it to Mayfield’s layered melodies with a message. In 1964 Mayfield came up with the black-powered “Keep on Pushing,” its sentiment and language  borrowed from a gospel groove and easily adapted to the civil rights cause:  “Hallelujah, hallelujah, keep on pushing.”  “Keep on Pushing” was in perfect synch with Dr. King and the march forward; it has been characterized as one of the movement’s unofficial anthems.  “Move up a little higher,” “I’ve got my strength,” “keep on pushing,” all phrases from the song, also borrowed from gospel’s language and its inspirational intent.  These were elements that never strayed far from Mayfield’s consciousness, and combined with the melodious strains to which he set his words, he could disguise the tougher sentiments by weaving them into the complex harmonies, while never losing the threads.  As time went on, Mayfield became more direct lyrically, but these early works were foundational to setting soul music in its new direction while they also passed in the mainstream.

The Impressions album Keep on Pushing was a Top 10 hit, making its impression on the masses as well as on two major 20th Century songwriters:  images-1Bob Marley had begun performing with his vocal group the Wailers in Kingston Jamaica, as if they were their country’s answer to the Impressions.  “Amen” and “I Made a Mistake” from Keep on Pushing were an important part of their early repertoire.  In 1965, Bob Dylan featured a picture of Keep on Pushing on the cover of his own album, Bringing It All Back Home.  That same year, the Impressions hit again with “People Get Ready,” a song Mayfield was first inspired to get busy on following the March on Washington; it ultimately became the song for which he would be best known.  “When humans from all walks of life can experience a piece of music and feel the same way—that’s soul,”  he once said.  Fifty years later, “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing” are still turning heads and inspiring people to singalong, though sadly Mayfield is gone.  Following a distinguished career as a groundbreaking solo recording artist and performer, Mayfield became paralyzed as a consequence of an in-concert accident (a lighting rig fell on him). He still wrote, but didn’t perform; he died the day after Christmas in 1999 of complications from diabetes.

You can read more on Curtis Mayfield and “Keep on Pushing” in Keep on Pushing. And next time you see that LeBron spot, I hope you enjoy the Curtis song just a little bit more.

Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?

Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner” and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Civil Rights, Curtis Mayfield, Keep On Pushing, , ,

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